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Tracing the Navel String of the Tiyanak: Demon Babies of Philippine Folklore

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Ian is a full-blooded Filipino visual artist who loves to incorporate Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.

Tianak by sheenponce

Tianak by sheenponce

The Call of the Wild

A Tiyanak is a vampiric creature from Philippine mythology that typically takes the form of an infant or toddler. They are also depicted to take malevolent delight in leading people astray or in abducting children.

They are said to have the ability to mimic a baby or a specific child, and able to imitate an infant's cries for luring victims.

The tiyanak retains the general shape of a baby. But once it is picked up by an unfortunate passerby, it reverts to its true form by growing sharp claws and fangs and then attacks the victim.

In some legends, the Tiyanak's true form is that of a little old man with wrinkled skin and fierce bulging eyes. They have large noses, wide mouths, and sharp voices.

In some legends, it is relatively immobile because one leg is shorter than the other and this deformity forces it to move by leaping or crawling, rather than walking. But its mimicking cries more than compensates for this disadvantage.

In yet another story, it is seen as a baby supernaturally flying through the forest. But in versions from the island of Mindoro, it transforms into a blackbird before flying away.

Another variant of the tale from Central Luzon, specifically in Pampanga province, the tiyanak is described as small, nut-brown people who don't walk on the ground, but rather float on air.

Like the famous Aswang, it is also said that when the cry of a tiyanak sounds faint, one is actually nearby; and conversely, if the cry sounds loud, it is actually distant.


The most common interpretation of the name is that it came from the words: tiyan ('womb/stomach') and anak ('child').

The name was originally spelled as Tianac or Tianak, which came from the earlier Patianac; supposed to be a derivation of the Tagalog words "patay-anak" or 'dead child'.

Tiyanak by notesoul

Tiyanak by notesoul

When a woman is about to give birth, some men undress until they are stark naked. Then taking shields and catans, one takes his stand in the silong(basement), and another on the ridge of the house, and they continually fence with the wind with their catans as long as the parturition lasts. They say that it is to keep the patiànac and the osuàng away from the woman. These are witches among them who come to obstruct the success of childbirth.

— Fray Francisco de San Antonio, Cronicas (1738-44)

Various countermeasures are supposedly effective against the tiyanak.

According to local beliefs, those that were led astray by the creature's cries can break free from the enchantment and regain their wits by turning their clothes inside out because the tiyanak allegedly finds the method humorous enough to let them go.

In the Philippines, we make loud noises by clanking metal objects as part of the New Year's Eve celebrations, aside from lighting firecrackers to drive evil spirits away and welcome good luck.

This practice is also said to work when repelling a tiyanak, along with other more popular methods like salt, garlic, and sacred objects.


The tiyanak myth was also integrated into the colonization of the Philippines.

The Catholic version of the legend claims that the tiyanak is supposedly the souls of infants that died before being baptized, who cannot move on to the afterlife for not having a name.

Additionally, this causes them to wander around searching for someone to give them one.

Therefore it is believed that giving a name to these lost souls will bring them peace, and offering a white candle will help guide its spirit to the afterlife.

Obviously, it was a way to gain more adherents to the new faith.

In modern times, this definition has extended to that of aborted fetuses that returned from death to seek revenge on those who have deprived them of life.

Mantiyanak by Julia Kristen Delos Santos

Mantiyanak by Julia Kristen Delos Santos

Mommy Dearest

For the Mandaya people of Mindanao, the tiyanak originated from the spirit of a child whose mother died before giving birth. This caused it to be born in the ground, thus gaining its current state as a creature of the earth and soil modern Filipinos refer to as laman lupa (meaning 'root crop').

In Kapampangan mythology, there is a creature called Antiànak, who was believed to be one of the oldest races of beings on earth. They grow up to twelve inches tall, looked like normal humans but smaller and extremely powerful; both capable of being benevolent and evil at times.

They have a more advanced civilization and were also able to communicate with the trees and animals, the spirits around us, and that of the wind and the water.

Their similarity to the modern concept of the duwende (Spanish for dwarves) might be because they were the origins for them in the pre-colonial Philippines.

However, there is also another creature from Mindanaoan folklore called Mantiyanak—a female spirit with a slit in her belly, exposing her unborn child inside.

She is a vengeful spirit who sees men as enemies because she thinks she could have lived a better life if she had not been pregnant when she was alive.

For this reason, she preys on men at night by ripping off their genitals with her long sharp claws. She is said to be afraid of women and would cry like a cat.

They had another deception—namely, that if any woman died in childbirth, she and the child suffered punishment; and that, at night, she could be heard lamenting. This was called patianac. May the honor and glory be God our Lord's, that among all the Tagalos not a trace of this is left; and that those who are now marrying do not even know what it is, thanks to the preaching of the holy gospel, which has banished it.

— Fray Juan de Plasencia, Customs of the Tagalogs (1589)

Kuntilanak by Pius Wirawan Pranoto from ArtStation

Kuntilanak by Pius Wirawan Pranoto from ArtStation

A similar supernatural creature existed in Malay folklore that resembled more to the White Lady than the Tiyanak of Philippine mythology.


The Kuntilanak of Indonesia, also called Pontianak, rather takes the form of a pregnant woman who died unable to give birth while her stillborn child was inside her womb; similar to the Sundel Bolong (with a gaping hole in her back), and the Langsuir (also spelled langsuyar)—a female revenant in other Southeast Asian regions.

The Kuntilanak is often described as a vampiric and vengeful spirit of the mothers who are killed while pregnant, with long sharp fingernails, pale skin, red eyes, and long black hair that lures in unsuspecting men to incite fear and enact vengeance.

She is often clothed in a blood-smeared white dress but is capable of changing into a more monstrous form when she captures her prey.

Nourished by human blood and organs, the Pontianak live in trees and stalk their prey from the branches above. The ponti in Pontianak originates from the Bahasa-Melayu word for 'tall trees'.

Signs that a Pontianak nearby includes the sound of an infant crying, feminine laughter, and the stench of a decaying corpse similar to the floral scent of the Carrion flower.

It is said that the sounds are quiet when she is nearby, but if they are loud, it means she is far away. Some sources also state that a dog howling at night indicates that a Pontianak is present, but not too close; but if the dog whines, then a Pontianak is definitely near.

The capital city of Western Kalimantan province—the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, is named after the Pontianak.

The story goes that when it was founded, it was infested by ghosts. Until Syarif Abdurrahman Al-Qadrie fended off the ghosts by shooting cannonballs to produce loud sounds. (Similar to how Filipinos drive out the tiyanak every New Year.)

Then the sultanate constructed the foundation of a mosque and a palace there in the forest and cut down the trees that the Pontianak inhabited.

The first sultan of the Pontianak Sultanate, whose reign lasted from 1771-1808, was said to be haunted by these wicked creatures as a result. Thus, it became known as one of the most terrifying ghosts described in Indonesian and Malaysian folklore today.

Toyol, artist unknown

Toyol, artist unknown

Child Charms

But there is another creature from Southeast Asian folklore that more closely resembled the look of the tiyanak: the Toyol (Tuyul in Javanese) —an undead infant generally considered as a helper spirit seen in the folklore of several countries around the Malay peninsula.

These are the spirits of stillborn or aborted infants that take on the likeness of a distorted child, greenish-grey in color, with pointed ears, sharp teeth, and red or clouded eyes.

It is said that they are virtually impossible to spot and it is unlikely to see one without actively looking for it.

A person who owns a toyol uses it mainly to steal things from other people or to do mischief, sabotage, and other minor crimes. But with special rituals, the toyol can be made powerful to commit murder.

In Javanese mythology, it is kept by a person practicing a specific kind of black magic called pesugihan toyol, mainly used to help people to become rich instantly.

Some say it can be kept for financial gain; but in return, a female member of the family must allow it to breastfeed from her, sucking blood instead of milk.


Originally, it was the actual corpse of the dead child. But in most accounts, the toyol spirit is housed in a static effigy most often encased in a bottle, a jar, or urn. Rituals are then performed on the object to invite the spirit into it.

These are called Koan Kroh or Cohen kroh (meaning 'smoked/roasted baby') in Khmer—the Austronesian language of Cambodia and Vietnam.


In Thailand, they call it Kumarn-thong (Koman-tong for male spirits, Koman-lay for the females) and are very often just figurines.

But the authentic ones originated by way of necromancy; obtained from the desiccated fetuses of children who had died whilst still in their mothers' wombs.

The corpse was burned until all the skin and fat was charred, then lacquered and covered with gold leaf.

In some accounts, it is usually made from a small statue carved out of tree bark, coral, or from the corpse's own bones; then placed in a container, soaked in perfume or chicken blood.

The witch doctors were said to have the power to invoke these stillborn babies, adopt them as their own, and use them to aid in their personal endeavors.


In Southern China, they are called Kwee kia in the Hokkien language.

It is said that the heads are chopped off and will be dried out to obtain their corpse oil, while the bones from the decapitated bodies are carved to become new replacement bodies.

The effigies could be used to control the spirit, and have to be specially ordered before you can get one.

Sadly, these dark talismans are still bought and sold in the black market today.

Chaneque statues?

Chaneque statues?

Distant Cousins

Except for the Tiyanak’s ability to disguise itself as a baby, some striking similarities with another folkloric creature from Aztec mythology suggest a possible link between the two creatures.


The Chaneque, Chanekeh, or Ohuican Chaneque as they were called by the Aztecs (sounds almost similar to Tiyanak, which is pronounced chà-nak), are legendary creatures in Mexican folklore.

The name comes from the Nahuatl word meaning, 'those who inhabit dangerous places' or 'owners of the house'.

They are conceived of as small, sprite-like beings, elemental forces and guardians of nature, entities associated with the Underworld whose main activity is to care for mountains and wild animals.

They usually inhabit forests, jungles, and many other places in nature, and are usually described as children with the face of old men or women.

It is said that they are approximately between one to twenty meters in height, with an enormous head and chocolate-colored skin, and possessing deformed bodies that are sometimes described as having a tail.


The Chaneque was both feared and revered, notorious for stealing the souls of those who strayed into their domain.

They would scare the souls called tonalli (the spirit associated with the day of the birth) out of the body, and then bury it underground. The only way for the victim to recover the soul is to undergo a specific ritual, otherwise, the victim will fall ill and die.

However, the chaneque can also reward humans with wealth and good fortune.

In Southeast Mexico today, they are believed to dedicate a significant part of their time to carrying out mischiefs, such as throwing rocks, breaking or hiding things, pulling tails of pets and farm animals, and other nuisance activities.

In some contemporary legends, chaneques show themselves to people as children to distract them and make people go stray for about three to seven days—after which the victims cannot recall anything that happened since then.

It is thought that they were taken to the home of these creatures in the Underworld, of which the entrance is a dry Kapok tree.

A popular belief was to wear clothing backward when walking alone through the wilderness to prevent these creatures from kidnapping lonely travelers or causing them to fall and steal their souls.


Like the case in the Philippines, when the conquistador Hernan Cortez finally subdued the Aztecs, the belief of the chaneque was modified by the friars to sway the natives into the Catholic faith.

They speculated that the chaneque was the result of the Devil possessing an unbaptized stillborn child, causing it to return as a demon that preyed on those who wandered into the jungle and that the captured souls are placed in pots to be devoured later.

In the folkloric tradition of the Yucatán Peninsula, these elementals are known as Aluxob in Yucatec Maya.

But in Spanish, they are called Duende (elemental dwarfs—also present in Filipino folklore). The term came from "dueño de casa" (those who live in houses).

Some suggest that these creatures were not really spirits at all, but actual human beings with the misunderstood and vilified genetic medical condition called dwarfism, who chose to live in their own communities far away from other people for fear of persecution and ridicule.

The devil steals a baby, leaving a concealed Changeling. Early 15th  century, detail of "The legend of St. Stephen" by Martino di Bartolomeo

The devil steals a baby, leaving a concealed Changeling. Early 15th century, detail of "The legend of St. Stephen" by Martino di Bartolomeo

Another mythological character that shared similarities to some extent with the Tiyanak lore is the Changeling—a human-like creature believed by many people today to be a fairy that had been left into the mortal homes to replace a human stolen by the fairies.

They are historically referred to as an oaf, found in folklore and folk religion throughout Europe.

Changelings are often said to exhibit odd behavior or have traits that are not normally found in desirable human young (such as having physical deformities).

Some tales also spoke of Changelings that had voracious appetites, unnatural knowledge, and imp-like traits that made them more mischievous or disturbing to their mortal "parents".

Many children (often disabled and/or of ill health) suspected of being changelings were subjected to harsh treatment by superstitious communities, wishing to rid themselves of what they believed to be a malevolent unwanted intruder.

According to legend, the abducted human children are given to the devil or used to strengthen fairy stock. The return of the original child may be affected by making the changeling laugh (Similar to how the Tiyanak lets go of its victim if amused.) —or by torturing it.

The most famous case being that of Bridget Cleary, an Irish woman killed by her own husband by burning her to death in 1895. She was suspected to be a changeling after she had been ill for several days, but her diagnosis was said to be bronchitis.

The existence of changelings is believed to stem from the idea that infants are susceptible to demonic possessions because the fairies are expressly said to prey upon unbaptized children.

Famous Tiyanak in Filipino movies: Tiyanak 1988, followed by a parody comedy titled Anak ni Janice in 1991(The Child of Janice [de Belen], the same actress playing in the original), and the subsequent reboot Tiyanak 2014 that starred Judy Ann Santos.

Famous Tiyanak in Filipino movies: Tiyanak 1988, followed by a parody comedy titled Anak ni Janice in 1991(The Child of Janice [de Belen], the same actress playing in the original), and the subsequent reboot Tiyanak 2014 that starred Judy Ann Santos.

Closing Thoughts

The mythology of the Tiyanak (and its many siblings from different cultures), allows us to glance through the lens of folklore and superstition at a very real and dark historic practice participated by almost every ancient society worldwide: Infanticide.

It is one of the most commonly practiced social norms in human history; from the ancient Greeks and Romans, to Imperial China and Japan.

In the middle ages, a newborn child was not always considered a gift. Those with perceived physical or behavioral abnormalities would often be regarded as evil omens or threats.

In China, female children were not desirable. Such children would likely be killed by their own parents or the community.

The historical motivation was often caused by illegitimacy, birth defects, and religious superstition.

Exposure to natural elements and abandonment, leading to starvation, dehydration, or animal attacks were some of the recorded methods. Others include suffocation and drowning.


Whether be it Sacrificial or Sex Selective Infanticide, this barbaric practice was an effective form of population control, more especially in countries that were poor and overcrowded.

Even in the Philippines today, we find newborns left abandoned in the roadsides and bushy areas from time to time—often by young mothers conceiving out of wedlock or victims of rape.

The fear of the tiyanak propagated to guilt trip mothers because abortion is still heavily stigmatized and considered taboo in the country.

The ongoing 'pro-life versus pro-choice debate' seems to be going nowhere because a woman's autonomy over her own body is clearly mandated by religious and cultural influences.

The Tiyanak in Netflix's Trese

The Tiyanak in Netflix's Trese

The myth of the demon baby did not just show the importance of motherhood but also presents the risks of maternal and infant mortality.

By tracing the origins of the tiyanak, we can see the development of myth-making and its countless evolutions.

In the modern world, babies are considered precious and cute.

But it is a relatively new phenomenon because for the majority of our human history, Infanticide was considered totally acceptable.

The tiyanak is a link to our past when we had very different ideas of moral obligations, and things weren't always explained by science.

Sources

A 1922 Tiyanak Story set at the foot of Mount Makulot in Cuenca Batangas, batangashistory.date

Filipino Historian Kirby Araullo, youtube.com/user/TheKirbyNoodle

The Alux and the Chaneque, Mexico’s Elusive Elves, mexicounexplained.com

Koan Kroh, pjcoggan.wordpress.com

Tiyanak, mythus.fandom.com/wiki

Chaneque, monster.fandom.com/wiki

Toyol, offbeat.fandom.com/wiki

Kuntilanak (folklore), Langsuyar, Pontianak, Chaneque, Toyol and Tiyanak, wikipedia.org

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on May 09, 2021:

Very interesting.

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